HARTFORD – Sarah Eagan, the state’s Child Advocate, said she’s seen children confined in closets and padded cells as a form of discipline. Sometimes, the rooms have no windows, or a window so high up that the child can’t look out of it. Other times there’s a peephole in the door, letting the adult peek in, but not letting the child see out.
“Over the years in our investigations we have seen spaces used for the isolation and confinement of children that I think would be shocking to you,” Eagan told the lawmakers on the Education Committee on Wednesday.
Eagan was there to testify on a proposal banning the use of seclusion as a form of discipline in schools, and further limiting the use of restraints to emergency situations, and only with a mandatory meeting with the parent after the event.
A number of people submitted testimony in favor of the proposed legislation — some parents whose own children have suffered the frequent use of seclusion or restraints.
Jennifer Reynolds, a parent in Fairfield County, told the committee about an incident in 2019 when her eight-year-old daughter with Downs Syndrome wanted to finish her picture book rather than join her class for a science lesson on the circle-time rug.
According to Reynolds, her daughter ended up pinned to the floor for 12 minutes, her arms held out in a T-position by three adults at her school.
When school resumed in-person after COVID, Reynolds said, the school district restrained her daughter and put her in seclusion a number of times.
“She begged us not to send her to school. She curled up in a fetal position in her bedroom. We were watching her joy and vitality disappear,” Reynolds told the committee on Wednesday.
Eventually, Reynolds was able to have her daughter moved to a different school in the district, where she has thrived academically and made friends. But Reynolds said she doesn’t want this to happen to another child.
“You can change all this,” Reynolds told the legislators. “I am asking that you strengthen the protections for our most vulnerable kids.”
Taking aim at “time outs”
According to Eagan, restraint and seclusion were outlawed in federal health centers more that 20 years ago. But those changes only started migrating into state education law over the last ten years.
“Education law and practices — as much as they’ve improved in the state of Connecticut over the last decade, have been way, way behind where federal mental health law has been,” said Eagan.
But Eagan said that while she’s in support of the proposed legislation — she said that restraint and seclusion negatively affect both teachers and students, and can lead to higher teacher turnover — she’s afraid the language in the bill doesn’t go far enough.
The reason is a part of the bill that allows for “time outs” — defined as separating the student from his or her peers and placing them in a “non-locked setting.” Under the current proposal, a district doesn’t have to inform parents when their child is put in a time-out, and schools don’t have to report the incident.
Eagan said this can lead to abuse.
“What we don’t want to see is what came in my inbox today — that a child is timed out 70 times for up to 45 minutes at a time with no documentation requirement, no notification to the parent, and God only knows what that space looks like where that child is,” said Eagan.
Eagan read email to the committee, which described a situation where several elementary schoolers were placed in a specialized program for children with disabilities.
One, a third grader placed in the program, started falling behind academically after frequent placements in time out. Another elementary school girl was placed in time out 70 times and restrained 7 times in her first year of the program. The third was restrained 65 times in the course of 15 months.
“We continue to see instances of children confined to rooms while a school employee stands at the door to prevent the student from leaving. These instances are not treated as seclusion by the district, they are not recorded and notice is not provided to parents,” Eagan said.
Eagan said she received a report about one student who was placed in a padded room and began banging his head against the wall. He ended up hospitalized with a concussion. After talking with the school, she said, the school agreed to stop secluding that child.
Questioning the bill
But not everyone who testified supported the bill, including special education program administrators who told the committee that seclusion, while a last resort, was necessary to keep themselves and their other students out of harm’s way.
“Many of our students engage in challenging behavior including self-injurious behavior, aggression, and property destruction- without use of these emergency procedures it will be difficult to keep our students and others safe. For many of our families, the use of a seclusion space is the only effective procedure to de-escalate an unsafe situation without risk of serious injury,” Marissa Nettleton, a special education coordinator for Milestones Behavioral Services, wrote in her testimony.
Reporting from CT Insider found that during the 2019-20 school year, about a reported 2,700 students were restrained over 19,000 times — an average of 7 times per student. The same year, about 2,000 students were placed in seclusion about 14,000 times — around 7.4 times per student according to reported incidents. That number dropped in the 2021-22 school year for reasons that may be connected to the pandemic.
Eagan said the proposed bill should require districts and schools to document when a child is placed in time out and notify the parents, and require a meeting with the parents if the child is placed in time out more than a certain number of times. She also said that parents should have a right to see the room where their child is being placed in time out.
There are already strong laws in Connecticut limiting how seclusion may be used, Eagan said. The question is how well they are being monitored.
“We know where most of these restraints and seclusions take place. They typically take place in specialized programs, publicly funded or publicly approved, that serve young children with more complex disabilities like autism, intellectual disability, and children who are multiply disabled,” said Eagan. “If we want to know what’s happening for children in those programs, we have to monitor and enforce the requirements of state law.”